Verdi’s Requiem is often better described as an opera than a mass setting: here it was also a memorial. Staged with Cancer Research in memory of Richard Fitzgerald, the late stage manager of the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra, there was something far more personal and fragile about this monumental gathering in Westminster Cathedral than may have initially appeared.

Verdi's Requiem at Westminster Cathedral
© Thomas Bowles

When Verdi penned this enormous work, it was following his own grief. Death and fear pervade the work. Verdi had lost his father, his father-in-law, his good friend Rossini and Alessandro Manzoni, the Italian novelist and poet that Verdi idolised. His Requiem is not for a mass. It is often referred to as Verdi’s greatest opera – which, compared to his roster of staged works, is quite the accolade. The mammoth Dies irae is almost an act in its own right: the opportunities for the soloists it delivers are matchless, and it is deeply moving. Unlike many before him, including Mozart, Verdi makes use of the whole text, from thundering brass to beautiful, elegant melodies and menacing, barely-there timpani.

The Recordare allows the soloists to flourish: mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg sounded wonderfully rich, with moments of exquisite tenderness, while soprano Corinne Winters was spell-bindingly regal. Edgaras Montvidas’ solos were briefer but memorable, particularly his delicate Hostias et preces tibi during the Offertorium, while Gianluca Buratto’s bass had impressive depth and command. This was a quartet singing for their lives, for their souls: their passages together had all the emotion of a Rigoletto quartet, but with enough poise for the occasion.

However, this concert was inevitably the sum of far more than its parts, and not for nothing are the Monteverdi Choir and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, playing period instruments including an impressive cimbasso, regarded as among the best in the world, helmed as ever by the inimitable Sir John Eliot Gardiner. From the first cello murmurings, something special was happening. The choir entered so quietly and with such carefully controlled vibrato that the audience – or perhaps, here, congregation – were immediately almost intruding on a private grief or mourning.

Gardiner took full advantage of the glorious surroundings of the cathedral. Wind players appeared in the balconies and, in one memorable passage, the bass intoned from the pulpit. The church’s enormous acoustic, which at times swallowed the soloists’ consonants and smudged low passages, if anything added to the theatricality. The Monteverdi Choir, well-rehearsed for the reverberation, spat out their phrases when required, and the glorious heady swell meant that the soloists could soar over the top, if not effortlessly, then all the more powerfully for it.

Indeed, the best passages were when all forces were working against each other and it was difficult to hear exactly what was going on where, or by who.  This is not a precise work; it is one deeply steeped in anguish, in fear, and at times in organised chaos. The effectiveness of this, however, was by its contrast with rapt attention when required, particularly in the devilishly tricky Sanctus.

For all that has gone before it, the Libera me, originally composed separately, brings the work to its conclusion, both literally and emotionally. Winters’ soaring soprano was persistent but beautiful, rising to her second high C without a flicker. The choir and orchestra’s most spellbinding moment of the entire work arrived as, after their last climax, they hushed to barely more than a murmur. Verdi’s final score notation is morendo, a mortal nothingness, as the music finally resolves, trembling, to the major. A fitting tribute to Mr Fitzgerald, and indeed to the occasion. 

The concert, in aid of Cancer Research UK, was performed in the memory of Richard Fitzgerald, who died of cancer in 2016. For this reason, there is no star rating on this review.